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Tale behind JBLM Army Museum is one for the history books

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Editors note: This report begins a series of monthly articles about the historical sites of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. We begin with the Army Museum, but will incorporate McChord Field in future reports.

In 2006, the only living things occupying the third floor of the then-Fort Lewis Military Museum were bats - a colony of them.

Since then, a $10 million renovation has restored the historic building, creating 15,000 square feet of classroom and training space on the third floor and replicating period hotel rooms when the museum was known as the Red Shield Inn. The museum was originally built in 1919.

Located just off Main Street on Lewis North, the grand white building now known as the Lewis Army Museum faces the freeway that runs between Lewis Main and Lewis North on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The building is a stunning sight to those traveling on Interstate 5, but its history is just as remarkable. At a cost of just $107,000, the Salvation Army completed the 150-room Red Shield Inn in November 1919 as part of a larger complex of buildings and businesses located just outside the main gate of then-Camp Lewis. The area, known as Greene Park, was named after the camp's first commander, Maj. Gen. Henry Greene.

The park provided wholesome recreational outlets for Soldiers, said museum director Myles Grant, who described Greene as a progressive leader who believed in fostering the physical and emotional well-being of his troops.

"(Greene) wanted to keep the ‘dough boys,' as Soldiers of the time were called, from what he referred to as the ‘diverse and open dens of vice' that sprung up just outside the camp's gates," Grant said. "So he took 100 acres of land right outside the front gate (where the Pendleton Avenue underpass is located today) and created a morale and welfare area."

Greene partnered with various charitable organizations to build the park, which included several concessionaires, playhouses, movie theaters, barber shops and two hotels - the Salvation Army Hut and the Red Shield Inn.

The inn, which had hot and cold running water in every room, telephone service and a refrigeration system in the kitchen, was considered state-of-the-art.

"It was kind of a technological marvel at the time," Grant said.

Recently, plans were underway to build a child development center across the street from the museum, but when contractors started breaking ground and digging test holes, they kept discovering old artifacts buried in the soil that were most likely remnants from Greene Park. Construction was halted in favor of a widespread archaeological study, scheduled to begin later this year.

And stories have circulated for years that the building is haunted, Grant said. In 1927, an actor who had a part in ‘The Patent Leather Kid," a silent film made on Fort Lewis, was allegedly murdered in one of the rooms. An exorcism was reportedly performed on the building, but a formal exorcism would have been documented and that has yet to be confirmed, Grant said.

"Paranormal groups on a regular basis keep calling me up to do studies," he said.

As the draw down from World War I decreased, business at the Red Shield Inn began to suffer and in 1921, the Salvation Army sold the hotel to the government for $1. The building operated as the Camp Lewis Apartments and then the Camp Lewis Inn before being renamed the Fort Lewis Inn when Camp Lewis became Fort Lewis in 1927. For the next four decades, the inn was used as a guest house for transitioning Soldiers and their Families until 1972 when it was converted to a museum. Seven years later, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and today stands as the last remaining piece of Greene Park.

Most of the building sat in disrepair until 2010, when a major rehabilitation project began to restore the old building. By that time, the vacant third floor was a disaster, Grant said, with mold, falling plaster, asbestos, standing water - and bats.

But almost three years later, the museum is once again a historical example of military service, not only in the structure itself but through the many exhibits on display throughout the building, including 1919 and 1953 reproductions of hotel rooms with original fixtures. And Grant believes it was a great bargain.

"You would not be able to get a 46,000 square-foot building for $10 million anywhere," he said. "We took part of our national heritage, we fixed it up, and we got more than our money's worth out of it in terms of what we're getting back in the way of a museum and a training facility."

The Lewis Army Museum is open to the public and admission is free. Hours of operation are Thursday through Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. Visitors without current military vehicle registration or a military identification card can obtain a pass to visit the museum at the Lewis Main gate off of I-5 Exit 120. A valid driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance are needed to obtain a pass.

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